I have an Idea

In 1921, Amy Dawson Scott, a poet, novelist and literary hostess declared “I have an idea!”  90 years later, her vision of an international association of writers working towards greater understanding and peace between nations has grown into a global human rights body with members in more than 100 countries worldwide. Describing the formation of PEN as an early example of “the big society in action”, Jonathan Heawood, Director of English PEN, kicked off twelve months of anniversary celebrations by chairing an event exploring the life of PEN’s enigmatic founder as well as the other personalities and politics that lay behind the birth of her extraordinary organisation. Joining him for an evening of discussion was Amy Dawson Scott’s granddaughter, Marjorie Ann Watts, an illustrator, children’s books author and writer who has recently published the short story collection Are They Funny, Are They Dead?; literary historian Simon Barker, author of a study of the life and work of English PEN’s first President, John Galsworthy; and Victoria Glendinning, the biographer and former President of English PEN.

Marjorie Ann Watts began the evening by treating the audience to an intimate and entertaining account of her grandmother’s life, explaining how: “Amongst her friends my grandmother was known as Sappho.  As a lifelong feminist, Amy Dawson Scott greatly admired the Sappho history – not for her sexual preferences but for her example and her establishment of women’s rights on the island of Lesbos 2000 years ago. From the day her own epic poem Sappho was published, this was what Amy was called by those who knew her well. To me of course she was Grandma – a short, plump and rather fierce person.” 

Born in Sutton in 1865 to strict parents, Amy Dawson was a headstrong, clever and articulate child.  The product of an unhappy marriage, Amy clashed regularly with her parents and later told her granddaughter “terrible and thrilling stories of being chased round the house with a bread knife by a grumpy mother.” Mrs Dawson died young and after her husband remarried, Amy was quickly dispatched to a small boarding school.  Although an awkward and rebellious pupil, she was hugely popular with her classmates for her wonderful story-telling gifts and, after attending finishing school, Amy found herself a job in 1884 as a live-in secretary for a blind classics professor. The elderly man allowed her the run of his vast library which she mined extensively, dreaming of one day pursuing a literary career of her own.  It was around this time that Amy met the noted Covent Garden publisher William Heinemann.  Heinemann was to become one of Amy’s closest friends and introduced her to members of London’s flourishing literary scene including H.G. Wells, W.B. Yeates, Miss Forster and Oscar Wilde. Encouraged by Heinemann, Amy soon began to earn modest sums writing reviews, poems and short articles and, in 1889, published her 210-page epic feminist poem Sappho.  Marjorie described how Amy began to be noticed: “Since by now she was a published writer, and an attractive young woman, she was made welcome at parties and literary gatherings everywhere. She was entertaining, widely read and with an attractive and original turn of mind – people liked her.”

Amy’s literary life was put on hold in 1897 when she moved to Cowes to settle down to conventional domesticity with her husband, a doctor, and three children.  14 years later though, the desire to write returned.  She re-established her London connections and, until her death in 1934, produced almost twenty novels in addition to a variety of plays, travel books and short stories tackling taboo subjects such as domestic violence, adultery, and premarital sex.  It was during this period of revitalisation, Marjorie explained, that Amy conceived her “three brilliant ideas.”

The first idea came to her just after the start of war in 1914: the Women’s Defence Relief Corps, an organisation assisting women to take up work in order that more men should be set free to fight. The WDRC was a hugely successful, effective and efficient organisation that evolved in due course to become the Women’s Land Army of World War Two.

In early 1917, Amy had her second brilliant idea: the Tomorrow Club. Marjorie described how “having herself been alone and friendless in London when very young, Amy sympathised with young and unknown writers, hence her idea – a club where writers of tomorrow could meet already established writers, publishers and agents informally over a cup of tea on a regular basis at minimal cost.”  The Tomorrow Club was an instant hit and attracted prominent speakers such as Siegfried Sassoon and T.S. Eliot.  H.G. Wells was another Tomorrow Club regular and, although a friend, did not escape Amy’s caustic observation that “he was so commonplace looking that in a crowd he manages to resemble everybody else.”  Not immune to the critiques of others, Alec Waugh, another Tomorrow Club speaker, once said of Amy that “everyone knew about her, everyone talked about her, most of her friends liked her, they all respected her.”  Despite her formidable reputation, Amy was a generous and kind literary hostess who, Marjorie described, “used to feed starving and penniless young writers once a week” and whose home was “always open on Sunday afternoons where one would find a nucleus of interesting and often famous, and sometimes less famous, and gifted people there who enjoyed meeting and talking to each other.”

It was in 1921 though that Amy conceived her third brilliant idea.  Marjorie recalled that Amy “was in the habit of writing long gossipy letters each week to my mother and it was in one of these that she first mentioned her idea – a dining club for poets, playwrights, editors and novelists – and after her experiences with the Tomorrow Club, it didn’t take long to get her new idea noticed.”   

In Marjorie’ words, Amy managed to “bully and cajole” 54 of her friends to join her new ‘Pen Club’ by the time of its Foundation Dinner on October 5, 1921 at the Florence Restaurant in Piccadilly.  George Bernard Shaw later remarked, “I joined because John Galsworthy said I must. He, presumably, joined because Mrs Dawson Scott said he must.”  By 1922, many distinguished European writers were involved and Pen had become established as a literary club of international prestige.  In his autobiography, the late Ernest Raymond summed Amy up as “essentially autocratic – she loved freedom and democracy and worked for them autocratically. [She led] a fine and strenuous life and one which her children, whether born of her body or her spirit, whether in her home or International PEN can be proud.” “As a grandchild”, Marjorie declared, “I agree.”

Central to the Pen Club’s early success was the appointment of its first President, the wildly popular and well-connected international figure of John Galsworthy. Although “not a man who joined things”, as Simon Barker observed, Amy persuaded Galsworthy to come on board.  He quickly became a driving force behind the Pen Club’s early success, travelling extensively and exploiting his international standing to recruit members in a number of countries.  “Although so different in character”, Marjorie explained, “he a lawyer, deliberate, wise, unswayed by emotion – Amy emotional, enthusiastic, unconventional and wayward – they complemented each other. She deferred to him, she admired him, she always knew that his voice was the voice of reason and that she should really do what he said.”

Simon discussed how Galsworthy’s involvement had begun with the Tomorrow Club: “He’d been very supportive of that and recognised a clear need for young writers to talk to each other and come away from their desks into a public sphere.  Galsworthy’s enthusiasm for the Pen Club developed from his idea that the public intellectual had a responsibility for other writers and for the social issues of the day.”  Although primarily remembered now for The Forsyte Saga, Simon reminded the audience that Galsworthy’s fame was so wide-reaching during his lifetime that “when he went to New York to do a tour about his work, he was smuggled off the ship on the dockside as there were so many people waiting to see him – it was reminiscent of when the Beatles went to America for the first time.”

Simon explained how, in addition to his literary fame, Galsworthy was also a prominent social campaigner in his day: “He was a figure, who, because of his own marriage, had been blackballed from London clubs.  He therefore had to present his respectability on the public stage because people would have known there was something in his private life that was somehow ‘out of order’.  He was an early supporter of women’s rights and is often seen historically as being single-handedly responsible for altering the law in terms of prison reform.”  Simon also described how working in a medical unit during the First World War had made a “profound impression on Galsworthy.  He came back determined that the world would change and that he would, as Sartre says, take up the pen to avoid having to take up the sword.  He took that international sense into PEN.” 

Although Galsworthy was clearly inspired by the political events of the time, Marjorie considered that Amy and her early Pen Club were driven more by personal principles than politics.  However, by the time of Victoria Glendinning’s appointment as President of English PEN in 2001, this non-political characteristic of the Pen Club had evolved considerably. As Victoria explained, “the importance of the Writers in Prison Committee had begun by then to be very striking and almost at the centre of what PEN’s work was becoming. That’s what most people would now associate with PEN.”  Jonathan Heawood considered that, as a result, there is a harder edge to the friendships that underpinned the original organisation: “the idea that the friendships have to be defended through hard times as well as enjoyed through the softer times.” 

In discussing the role of PEN in the modern world, Victoria recounted her recent visit to Singapore where 76-year-old British writer Alan Shadrake was recently sentenced to six weeks in jail for exposing corruption in the authoritarian state’s judicial system in his book, Once a Jolly Hangman. Currently suffering from a heart condition, PEN is assisting Shadrake with medical costs while he fights the conviction.  In a recent conversation with Victoria, Shadrake explained the driving force behind his stand: “I’m trying to show to the people of Singapore that they can be defiant and not knuckle down under injustice as most do.”

Victoria explained how when in Singapore, she met up with a fellow PEN member who was considering opening a centre in the city state.  They conceded the improbability of such a move, however, after reading Article 4 of PEN’s Charter which states that members must pledge themselves to “…oppose any form of suppression of freedom of expression in the country and community to which they belong, as well as throughout the world wherever this is possible.”  Victoria considered that while some may believe writers in Singapore should “throw stones” and form a centre, it was her view that “all different countries mediate their dissent in different ways and at the moment in Singapore it’s happening on the blogs, with students and in universities and internet forums.” 

Opening up the floor to questions, Jonathan began by asking about the apparent absence of certain prominent writers from the story of PEN’s birth: “There’s a very standard literary history of the 20th century which emphasises formal experimentation and the great modernists of that time such as Leonard Woolf, T.S. Eliot, James Joyce and Ezra Pound – PEN seems to be part of a different literary history.”

Simon agreed that, despite international fame during his lifetime, the memory of Galsworthy and many of his Pen Club idealists, their works and their vision that “writers should have to change the world and to have that public role” was soon submerged by the more dominant literary history of the Bloomsbury Set.  Indeed, this vision was at the heart of a significant clash between the two literary camps, a clash epitomised by Virginia Woolf’s famous dismissal of Galsworthy as “that stuffed shirt.”  When asked to join PEN, Virginia Woolf reportedly responded:  “What does it mean?  Does it commit one to make speeches or to come regularly or to read papers or what?”  Her lack of enthusiasm for such a venture was clear for all to see.

Mindful of this antagonistic relationship, one audience member asked whether PEN continues to attract writers from specific literary camps.  The panel was in agreement that, unlike the early Pen Club, today’s PEN is characterised, and indeed strengthened, by its wide and diverse membership of writers, publishers and journalists.  Furthermore, Marjorie reminded the audience that while “the percent of the population who were interested in those sort of issues was very small then” the advent of the multimedia age has attracted interested and committed members of publics from outside of the literary world to the ranks of PEN, further diversifying and strengthening its membership and encouraging the formation of PEN centres in previously unlikely areas of the world.

Although leaving with a better knowledge of the origins of PEN, the panel agreed that there was still much to learn and were delighted to hear from one audience member that an in-depth history of the Pen Club is currently being researched for a PhD thesis.  “It’s more than just the story of PEN”, Marjorie commented, “it’s the story of writers in this country and of the literary and political history of the 20th century.”  All those who were present at this wonderful evening event would surely have agreed with Jonathan’s conclusion that “the story of PEN is an incredible one.  It needs to be told.”

Report by Stephanie Hunt

Photographs from this event can be see online at our flickr site

Originally posted with the url: www.englishpen.org/events/reportsonrecentevents/ihaveanidea/

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